Women, Politics and Sex Symbols

Cold December ended by welcoming the politically heated environment in Sri Lanka. While on one side the whole country burnt with the local and international political climate on the possible resolution against Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council, the Western and Southern Provincial Council elections blared on the other.

The Western and Southern Provincial Councils were dissolved on 12th January this year, and as announced by the Department of Elections, the nominations for both Provincial Councils are to be accepted from January 30 to February 6. But even before the Commissioner of Election declared the date of election in both the provinces, an inspired minster of the central government announced the date as 29th of March, which is exactly correct according to the election procedures under the law.

It does not matter whether the councils are dissolved or not, government’s political signals make political parties and politically interested people to get ready for the next election, predicting not only that they will get the nomination, but also will win the election. This election period will bring new stories as well as new faces into the political discourses. Each political party is trying its best to win the election irrespective of as to how they would win. It is not a matter about the development plans they have in their hands for the benefit of the country, or as to how best they should serve the people, but the main concern here is who will be the one to bring more votes to the party.

Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), is going beyond the role of election monitors and ethics, on 22nd January stated, that the two main political parties are filling their nomination lists with ‘sex symbols [http://www.caffesrilanka.org/more-4a-9121-2.html]. While political parties search for popular faces to win the election, many actors and actresses, from the Sri Lankan Sinhala film industry, as well as musical artists, indicated that they will be contesting for the election, out of whom a few presented themselves for the interviews held by the political parties, and some were to present themselves in the days to come.

Out of all popular artists from the fields of music, tele-dramas and film industry, majority were males, but the targeted media attack was against only the female figures, tagging them as “sex Symbols”. Not only the attack of the media, even some ministers – including the Minster of Youth Affairs also was not happy to welcome them into the politics.

“Sex Symbol” a term which was first used in the mid 1950s in relation to the popularity of certain film stars, notably Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot, means a person, especially an entertainer – typically an actor, musician, supermodel, teen idol, or sports star or celebrity of either sex, who is widely acknowledged to have sex appeal, or as sexually attractive. The Collins American English Dictionary defines “sex Symbol” as a well-known person who is generally regarded as representative of sexual attractiveness, is a famous person, especially an actor or a singer, who is considered by many people to be sexually attractive.

This crafts a question whether women are “sex symbols” in an election, and if the answer is “yes” the second question is “whose election is this?”

If the society is silent when popular male artists contest for an election, and voice against female artists who contest for an election irrespective of their political suitability, the question is not about the female candidates but about the double standards of the society.

According to the Department of Census and Statistics, 2012 census revealed that there was a total population of 2,464,732, with 48 % male and 52 % females in the Southern Province. And according to the Department of Election sources     18, 73,804 voters are eligible to cast their votes to elect 57 PC Members to the Southern Provincial Council,  during the forthcoming election, according to the 2013 electoral list certified by the elections commissioner on January 1, 2014.

As per the 2012 census, 48 % males and 52 % females, out of a population of 5,821,710 live in the Western Province and according to sources of the Department of Election, and as per the 2013 electoral list certified by the Elections Commissioner on January 1, 2014, 40, 24,614 voters from the Western Province are qualified to vote on the elections date to elect 104 PC Members to the Western Provincial Council.

Though it is not the issue of the male political dominance over majority women, this data force us to discuss about the lack of reasonable representation of women in politics. It is an important fact to bear in mind that, while women represent the women themselves, they also represent the whole society, especially the needs of care, protection and development of children.  One can argue that women are not ready enough to get into politics, or could say that politics is not a women business and it is not easy for them to be political representatives under the existing proportionate representative system. But it is time for the people who argue to realize that if women are not capable then there arises a question as to who is responsible for the women’s incapability.

It is not an issue of the ‘capability of women’ in politics, but is the issue of the prevailing social structures. “Social structures” is a term used to refer to patterned social arrangements in any given society that are both evolving from, and determined by, the actions of the individuals. Further, it is seen as “relationship between different entities or groups or as enduring and relatively stable patterns of relationship”. In our patriarchal society, women are still considered as secondary citizens, where there is no trust on their capabilities, and men still prefer to keep women as their subordinates.  This is exactly the attributes of, not only culturally, but also politically and economically gendered – society.

“Gender” refers to the “social characteristics assigned to men and women that includes roles, status and power relations in any given society or culture that create social structures. According to the UNFPA, the term gender refers to the “economic, social and cultural attributes and opportunities associated with being male or female”.

If gender equality is to be witnessed in a society, the women in the society should be given equal status, opportunities and roles same as it is for men, in the decision making and development processes. Likewise it is important to include the needs of women into the development process, it is also essential that women be included into the processes considering their contribution as a positive factor.

Women in Development [WID] requires greater attention to women and their needs in development policies, programmes and practices, and could be considered as a justice for women, but not equality or equal rights for women; whilst, Gender and Development [GAD] is an approach born in the discourses of rights based approach in sustainable development, while filling the gaps of women in development.

Gender and Development views women as ‘change makers and rights holders, and not as recipients of development’. GAD also can be viewed as the best strategy for greater success in holistic approach in social justice and poverty eradication. The GAD challenges the existing gender roles in the society, and shapes them within the normative framework of human rights to assure gender equality.

Gender Equality”, some scholars call it as “Gender Justice” refers to the fair treatment for both assigned sexes; “male and female” considering the different needs and aspiration of the men, women, girls and boys, and the socio-cultural environment that affects each of them. The basic principle of gender equality is not that all are equal, but, that their rights are same and no discrimination could be done based on their assigned sex; male or female. Gender Equality is seen as both, a human rights issue and, as a precondition for, and indicator of, sustainable people-centered development.

Women in Sri Lanka today, play a significant role in decision making in most of the sectors. Sri Lankan women gained the voting right since 1931. It produced the world’s first woman Prime Minister. A woman ruled the country as the Executive President during 1999 – 2003. But today in the seventeenth [present] parliament, there are only 13 women parliamentarians [5.7%] out of 225, including three national list nominees. No quota is reserved for women in Parliament in Sri Lanka today, whereas in India 10%, in Bangladesh 15%, in Pakistan 30%, and 27% in Afghanistan is reserved for women. As of April 2009, there were only 17 out of 417 women Provincial Council Members [4.07%], and 78 out of 4000 members [1.9%] in the Local Government Councils.

As a country which gave franchise for men and women equally before most of the other democratic countries, and as the country which offered the first Female Prime Minister to the world, it is necessary to review the laws and party policies of the country to accommodate more women in all the levels, at the parliament, provincial councils and local governments.

Hence, it is the role of the society [including the government, media, academic and civil society groups] to empower women towards getting into politics, and keep men accountable for accommodating the women into the political system in Sri Lanka, rather than to deny women of their capabilities by limiting and narrowing women into a frame, tagging them with inappropriate terms.